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Re-post: The Well at Burke Presbyterian Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on August 27, 2013.

by Arlene Decina

For the past two summers at Burke Presbyterian Church, we have taken a leap — from the traditional Vacation Bible School that had always been a highlight of our programming into something that is, for us, brand new and refreshing.

By many standards, our Vacation Bible School was a smashing success. In recent years we have created and developed our own original program with an emphasis on slowing our pace, going deeper, and forming community . . . and we filled to capacity, attracting gifted and energetic leaders. We became known for our unique approach, and, in fact, the model that we created for VBS has now been borrowed and implemented in other churches with their programs. So why, you might ask, should we do something different? Why fix something that is not broken?

A year and a half ago, in January 2012 – when we gathered for our annual “What-are-we-going-to-do-for VBS?” meeting – none of us had the level of energy and enthusiasm that we had experienced in the past. We sat in silence for a time until our Elder for Children’s Spiritual Growth quietly interrupted with a heartfelt and earnest, “What if we were to try something entirely new this year?”  She had our full attention.

Giving ourselves permission and invitation to ponder, we realized that as captivating as our originally conceived and fashioned VBS had been, it too had become a reliable, nearly institutionalized model. We began to ask ourselves the big wondering questions of how we could best use our time and energies both to strengthen the bonds within our church and to serve God and the community. How could we live into the phrase that we often repeat as a mantra, “Less is More,” to provide a fresh wellspring of spiritual growth and nurture for those who generally do so much of the work of the church? What would bear the most nourishing fruit for us in this time?

Out of these frank questions and honest wonderings, and within the new space created by letting go of our traditional Vacation Bible School, The Well was born.

Of course, there were birthing pains associated with growing The Well. The team knew that not having a Vacation Bible School would be hard for some folks to understand, let alone imagine. Therefore, the greatest hope and chance for success would only be possible with intentional introduction and thoughtful explanation of The Well.  We began with the leaders of the church. The idea of The Well was first proposed to the Spiritual Growth Ministry Team, and then to the Session. Carefully timed communications via church-wide letters, emails, and newsletter articles rounded out the way we shared this change with the community.  Along with these corporate notifications, each member of the planning team also spoke about The Well with small groups and individuals along the way. While news of The Well was largely met with anticipation and openness, there were people who pushed back and with certainty said that letting go of VBS was shirking our commitment to evangelism and showing a sign of a church in decline. Ultimately, the number of dissenters was quite small. In fact, in the second year of The Well, some of the original dissenters from the previous year came to The Well!

It is important to note that during this time, Burke was beginning an interim pastorate after a much-loved pastor of 27 years retired.  Change of this magnitude was new for many at BPC.  Allowing for this dissent was important, even while it was hard for the planning team to hear.

BPC2As a result of all these conversations and hopes and labor pains, in July 2012, and again in this summer of 2013, The Well blossomed into a three-evening multi-generational event that included Burke Presbyterian Church members and friends of all ages and all stages and all family configurations. Each evening, we began our time outdoors with an informal and invitational gathering marked by live and beckoning music on the front lawn, games and sidewalk chalk and bubbles, and water and process art choices that drew children – and the child in all of us – together for sharing and conversation.

BPC3Meanwhile, the tables inside were beautifully set for the next part of our evening, a family-style meal. Participants’ nametags indicated which was their table, so there was no need to wonder, “Where will I sit?” or “Is there a place for me?” Guided by our host, who like a liturgist artfully set the tone, we enjoyed a delicious supper with our table-group “families” in a gathering that became central to our time together.

Each evening following mealtime, we separated by age into groupings – the very youngest in the nursery, and children, youth, college-age, and adults – for an intentional time of engaging with one another and with the story, with Scripture, or with a Sabbath practice. On our opening night this year we welcomed keynote speaker Rev. MaryAnn McKibben Dana who shared insights from her recent book, Sabbath in the Suburbs. Subsequent evenings we delighted in hearing from our own Interim Pastor Rev. Diane Hutchins and Pastoral Associate Rev. Deryl Fleming. Drawing from these cherished resources within our community as well as outside of our community allowed for rich and dynamic keynotes. We concluded each evening of The Well by coming together in the Sanctuary for a short, ten minute Evensong liturgy written and led by two of our pastoral parishioners, Rev. Alice Petersen and Rev. Bill  Lowrey. Just the right amount of time for night prayers and prayer songs, for good nights and good byes.

BPC4Our second evening of The Well this year had something different in store; we were in for an amazing and memorable experience — Stop Hunger Now! In a matter of an hour and a half, the two hundred or so of us – ages three to mid 80s (with seating available for those who preferred to watch) – packaged 10,000 meals, which we learned would be sent to Haiti. Words will simply not do justice to what we as a church family experienced — it was Holy Ground, indeed! As we transitioned from Stop Hunger to our own mealtime, our liturgist called us together saying, “Just as we have prepared a meal for others, a meal has been prepared for us” … and with that we settled into suppertime. A reflection afterward on The Feeding of the Five Thousand, offered from the perspective of a child’s perception, and we all were filled to the brim in mind, body and spirit.

BPC1There was an elegant simplicity to The Well, exemplified by the tiny pile of things to be sorted and put away the following week compared to the usual digging-out after VBS!  Indeed, there were far fewer moving parts than with our traditional Vacation Bible School. Rather, our fresh goal for this experience was to set the scene – to offer the opportunities – for moving experiences, for deep-well moments, for making memories as a family of faith.

The Well is just what we have needed in this season of change for Burke Presbyterian Church.  As we look around we clearly see fruits born of letting go of the old and risking a new endeavor.  Out of one of the Adult offerings in The Well 2012, an intentional gathering of Contemplative Practices began to meet weekly, with 20-25 adults of various ages attending regularly.  Older adults with no previous ties to young families at BPC are now helping in our mid-week Logos program known as Rainbow. A new group for college age and older high school students has formed and plans to meet for study and fellowship during the year. Over two hundred people have a shared experience from the summer forging new or deeper relationships within the church community.  And yes, we even have new families visiting on Sunday morning as a result of their time spent at The Well.

This experience of The Well has reminded us of the surprising creativity, soul-full richness, and extravagant hospitality that is possible when we allow ourselves to be receptive to the refreshing guidance of the Holy Spirit.

We can only imagine what God will call us to in the future. Praise be to God!


Arlene Decina is the Director of Spiritual Growth Ministries at Burke Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia.

Gathering at The WELL

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Ellen Crawford True is curating reflections on intergenerational ministry. What does it look like for the church to do and be church together? What does it feel like to understand ourselves as vital parts of the body? What can it mean to seek to be faithful as children of God together, no matter what comes next? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Arlene Decina

Just a few weeks ago we gathered for our first planning meeting for this, the fifth year of our multi-generational event called The WELL. A last-minute adjustment to our plans had the six of us meeting in the living room of a new member to the team. With napping children upstairs, this change in location made it possible for her to be with us, and us with her. Another friend, new to the team, brought along her almost-2-year-old who happily kept herself busy with an assortment of toys in this child-friendly home. Making space—sacred space—for one another regardless of age, or stage, or gender, or family configuration is what The WELL is all about.

well1Indeed, over the past four years, a wonderful mix of church family and friends—from ages 6 weeks to over 90, families and singles, youth and young adults—have attended this three-evening, retreat-style gathering.

We opened our meeting with a conversation around the question of what, for each of us, is most important about The WELL. Amid the changes that are inevitable, what is it that we hold dear and want to keep?

One person mentioned how she enjoyed the intentionality of the dinner seating—spending three nights sharing a meal with her table group and getting to know them on a deeper level.

Another recalled the multi-generational “Montreat-style” games at gathering time. “It was simple, but there was something for everyone … and it was okay to just stand around and talk.” “The Minute-to-Win-It” games at dinnertime were fun, too.”

Our conversation moved to what we would offer children during the after-dinner program. Those in middle school and older will remain with the larger group, but we heard affirmation that having separate activities for the younger children during this part of the evening was an important way to nurture parents. Finding adult leaders who know and love the children is key, but it also matters that we give our year-long, regular teaching staff a breather. They need to be refreshed as well.

well2We talked about the importance of play, and what it means to engage in play that is genuine. A newcomer to the group asked, “Is the purpose of all of this to have quality time together among the generations?” In unison we answered, “Yes!” to which she replied, “It’s like having Rainbow [our midweek Logos program] for three days in a row!” “It’s about making memories as a church family,” another chimed in, recalling this seed that was the inspiration of The WELL from the start.

Several spoke with fondness about the evening vespers, when we all gather in closing for blessings, prayers and goodbyes.

The WELL is mostly about hospitality—about being the church with and for one another.

All are welcome!

We gather for a potluck supper for our next planning meeting!

To learn more about The WELL, please read our first blog post about it.


decinaArlene Decina is the Director of Spiritual Growth Ministries at Burke Presbyterian Church in Northern Virginia.